Monday, 4 May 2015

Strengthening the Links between Academics and Practitioners

The object of this brief essay is to outline some of the issues and challenges that academics and practitioners in the field of disaster risk reduction (DRR) and resilience face in communicating with one another and working together. My aim is to offer a preliminary contribution to discussions that will take place at the UCL Academic Summit on 24th June 2015.

With respect to risks, crises, emergencies and disasters, in their various phases, the function of academics is, broadly, to observe and deduce. This is part of a constant search for enlightenment, in which what events in the field form the raw material of research, teaching and advice. A body of existing knowledge is brought to bear on new developments. By synergy, it is augmented during that process.

Academics are the chief producers and utilisers of theory. If it is any good, theory explains, connects, validates, qualifies and makes practical action more efficient. As the eminent sociologist of disasters, Tom Drabek, noted, it is the road map of disaster reduction and relief because it clarifies issues and fundamental relationships. Leaving aside bad, irrelevant or misconceived theory, which clarifies nothing, DRR and resilience are distinctive, if not unique, in that the test of good theory is its immediate applicability to practical problems. There is much less emphasis on storing up theory for use at some undefined time in the future, although, of course, this can be useful as well.

Theory needs to be formulated and validated by measuring it against the evidence. The first of these steps involves creating models that, as elegantly as possible, simplify reality to its most important elements and filter out extraneous detail (to use an electrical metaphor, the model extracts the 'signal' from the 'noise'). The models are made by observation of reality "in the field", employment of existing methodology and building upon previous formulations. The evidence must be collected in the field and from statistical sources, as appropriate.

Caveat emptor: in academic research, much is made of the concept of an evidence base, as DRR and resilience are considered to be fields in which there has been something of a failure systematically to amass evidence. Although there is much truth in this observation, care needs to be taken over what is evidence and how it can be used. Evidence can be misleading, inconsistent, indeterminate or selective. It can defy interpretation, or it can be manipulated. Indeed, all use of evidence is selective, whether in pursuit of objectivity or not. Hence, any emphasis on collecting and using evidence throws up a series of questions. To what extent is evidence a surrogate for experience? Is evidence composed of "objective data", or is it mere perception of how the world functions? What is the connection, if any, between evidence and wisdom? How much evidence is enough? Finally, can we do without evidence and would explanation be more efficient if this were the case? These are all open questions, for which the answers require deep thought and much debate.

According to some commentators, there is a distinction between academics and practitioners, in that the latter inhabit "the real world". It is perhaps worth noting that there is nothing less real about the academic world. Indeed, in some cases it may well be more "real", in that academic work permits one to develop overviews and explicitly to measure situations against knowledge of how the world functions in ways that practitioners can seldom do.

Nevertheless, there is certainly a high degree of separation between the world of the academics and that of the practitioners, from policy formulators to front-line operatives. To make decisions about expenditure on risk reduction or humanitarian intervention; to run a business in the face of a risk that it may be interrupted or destroyed by disaster; to save lives after natural hazard impact; to make calculations about structural resilience; to provide shelter; these are examples of the work of practitioners and every one of them would benefit from a measure of sound academic work in both research and training, or education.

The simplest way for academics to be appreciated by practitioners is to produce something that makes the work of the latter simpler or easier. At their best, academics can generate insight, correct impressions, solve problems, provide learned commentary, invent new routines or instruments and connect up the pieces of a problem in ways that are creative and revelatory. At worst, they fall foul of the phenomena that obstruct common endeavour.

There are several barriers to communication and collaboration between academics and practitioners. The first is language. Many academics have a tendency to write in long, intricate sentences that present abstruse concepts by way of impenetrable jargon. There may be fields in which this is justified, but they do not include DRR and resilience. Granted, one cannot avoid much of the technical language of physical and construction sciences, but in the social sciences obfuscation is greatly overused. Complexity is particularly attractive to the neophyte. It conveys an aura of wizardry (hey presto! this is research!), and it is seen as endowing a work with legitimacy. Lovers of complexity would do well to read J.B. Priestley's essay "Making writing simple", in which he looked back wryly on his own youthful pretentiousness and in his maturity offered common sense and sagacity.

The second barrier is divergence of objectives. Not all scholarship needs to be immediately applicable to practical problems. Indeed, it is one of the great tragedies of modern research policy in DRR and resilience that the emphasis falls so heavily on applications that basic research is being given short shrift. However, it is often possible to fulfill theoretical and practical objectives at the same time, as the latter become a spin-off of the former. Thus, research for the sake of research may still result in practical applications, as well as storing up knowledge for use in future practice.

The third barrier is mutual incomprehension. Both sides need to make the effort to appreciate the perspective of the other without denigrating it. Synergy or symbiosis, or in other words, added value, can only be created if there is genuine input on both sides.

The fourth barrier is indeterminacy. Understandably, practitioners want answers. Academic culture induces us to hedge our statements with qualifiers. The response is often "Yes, I understand that, but is it going to happen or not?", and the academic replies, "Well it might do, under certain circumstances", which leaves the practitioner distinctly unenthused. The misperception that science has all the answers is widespread. We live in a world dominated by indeterminacy and unsolved problems. More than ever, the emphasis in science has shifted from providing the answers to constraining uncertainty as far as is possible with current knowledge and techniques. Neither side wants to admit that the answer could be "there is no answer", but that is often the case. For example, regarding earthquake prediction, we know the location of broad areas of seismicity. We know much about the recurrence intervals of events of certain sizes, and we can amass information on the effects of earthquakes by studying local vulnerability. However, broad-term magnitude-frequency predictions remain controversial as a result of the duality between probabilistic and deterministic methods, while short-term prediction may be an unattainable goal. In many areas, the way that the interaction of faults changes the stress field in the Earth's crust is complex enough roundly to defy exact prediction of when and where the next seismic event will occur, and what will be its magnitude. Paradoxically, human reactions may be more predictable than that, if we only learn to observe the signs.

The final barrier to collaboration lies in divergent imperatives. The politician, business manager or field operative is under pressure to produce results. In the academic world there may be intense pressure to publish or teach. Assessment can limit the opportunity to work on problems that are outside the parameters set by the assessors. Nowadays, research funding programmes often include a vaguely-defined criterion called 'impact'. However, in DRR and resilience, there is still a big gap between the academic research agenda and the fundamental needs of society. Great efforts have been made to close it, but institutional, employment and funding pressures continue to dictate the agenda independently of other issues.

One other issue is important. In the present day, much is made of trans-, inter- and multi-disciplinary work. There is a widespread understanding that the boundaries between disciplines need to be crossed, because practical problems have multiple facets and can be appreciated and analysed in different ways. A holistic approach to DRR and resilience is better than one that attempts to solve only part of the problem because it stems from the perspective of only one discipline. This is entirely justifiable, as problems associated with disasters tend to be complex, and more than 40 disciplines are professions are engaged in trying to solve them.

I advocate two criteria for strengthening this approach. The first is to abandon the concept of disciplines as far as is possible. Those, such as engineering, that involve liability cannot entirely be forsaken. However, it is axiomatic that the demands of the problem should determine the solution, not those of the discipline through which it is viewed. Half of the battle to reduce risks and disasters lies in appreciating the potential of disciplines and professions that are not one's own. Secondly, one should try to avoid the natural human tendency to assume that there is only one reality and each of us is a party to it. The best way to appreciate human motivations and objectives is to see problems in the light of different views of reality dictated by different life experiences, cultures, and forms of education and training. Broad-mindedness is the basis of collaboration, along with a willingness to accommodate new perspectives.

In the light of these considerations, several themes emerge for debate. The first is how to make research more useful. This obliges one to define 'useful' and to think about what academic research can contribute to the solution of urgent practical problems in our field. It may also require some consideration about what is not being done and should form part of the agenda. For instance, how should we appreciate the opportunities and limitations that go with working to reduce disasters in the light of any particular human culture?

The second issue is how to improve communication across the boundaries between disciplines and professions. In our academic or professional training, we are taught to reason in particular ways, yet the distinctive feature of disasters and crises is that they create an imperative need for answers to problems that may transcend the barriers. Despite all the talk of interdisciplinary work, there are still very strong pressures to identify with disciplines and professions, to protect their territory in the field of learning, and to conform to their norms. Yet, given the urgency of the need to protect the world's populations against disaster, loss of identity and loss of credibility may be the least  important of our worries.

Thirdly, we need to address how to improve teaching and training so that they better suit the needs of the trainees. Courses are beset by the problems of fragmentation among the disciplines that contribute to DRR and resilience. Do we fully appreciate the need to produce 'educated generalists', who understand the multi-faceted nature of disasters? Before launching our courses, did we conduct a needs assessment, and afterwards have we measured the effectiveness of the training or education provided? What should be the content of the core curriculum, and what are the best methods of putting it across?

Finally, it is imperative to find out how to avoid the isolation brought by monodisciplinary approaches. Are there antidotes to the pressures to conform in disciplinary circles? Can we press for better recognition of genuinely interdisciplinary work? Despite the rhetoric, there remain many more opportunities for interdisciplinary (or indeed non-disciplinary) work than examples of it in practice.

In conclusion, the debate needs adaptability, receptiveness and a desire to avoid the 'dialogue of the deaf'. Academics can help practitioners find answers to the problems that beset them, and to find their way around the maze of existing knowledge. That process cannot take place without mutual understanding and a genuine desire to adapt to the perspectives, exigencies and cultures of the other side in this debate.